American Philosophy: The Emergence of Pragmatism




Be prepared to answer 10 out of the following 18 questions:

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1.Define “American Pragmatism.”  What lies at the heart of this philosophy?

2.Jonathan Edwards seems to advocate for utter dependency on God and independence from other human beings.  How is this similar and dissimilar to Pragmatism?

3.Although its subject is religious belief, Edwards’ essay “A Divine and Spiritual Light” is a good example of what philosophers call “epistemology.” Epistemology, from the Greek root “episteme” or knowledge, is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature and limits of human knowledge. Examples of epistemological questions are: Where does our knowledge come from? How can we establish that our knowledge is true or accurate? According to Edwards are there forms of knowledge that are beyond doubt and absolutely certain?

4.Although it is not philosophy in the traditional sense, Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography” does introduce several themes that are important to America’s own distinctive brand of philosophy. For example, concerning his views of religion, Franklin states that after reflection he decided that his belief in Deism “tho’ it might be true, was not very useful” (32). How does this “making the usefulness of an idea more important than the issue of its philosophical truth” embody the tradition of American Pragamatism?

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5.One of Thomas Paines most famous statements is “My own mind is my own church” (39). What does Paine mean by this?

6.In the final sentence of his essay Paine implies a distinction between “fabulous” religion and “true” religion (48). What does he think the difference is?

7.Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” was very controversial, and not what the young preachers at Harvard were expecting to hear. In it, Emerson alludes to the importance of spiritual or existential questions, and refers to the inner “laws of the soul” as being most important (60). He also refers to this as “the indwelling Supreme Spirit” within us (61).  What does he mean by these?

8.Like Paine, Emerson presents criticisms of a Christian religion that has become corrupt, and discusses the figure of Jesus Christ (61-62). When he states, “Obey Thyself” (62), what does he mean by this statement?

9.According to Thoreau’s “economics,” the cost of something is “the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it” (75). The problem, ultimately, as he sees it, is that “men have become the tools of their tools” (75).  Explain this!

  1. C.S. Peirce observes that whether or not a belief is actually “true” is not a factor in our deciding what to believe. To quote, “as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false.”  What does he mean by this?  How is this a core doctrine in American Pragmatism?

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1.Explain what Peirce means when he states, “what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.” (103)

2.For William James, philosophy is simply our “more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.” His understanding of the relevance of pragmatism to our lives resides in what he calls “the pragmatic method” (111).  What is this method, and how does he illustrate it through his example of the “ferocious metaphysical dispute” involving a man and a squirrel?

  1. The “theory of truth” pragmatism offers is best described by James on the top of p. 116: “We say this theory solves on the whole more satisfactorily than that theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves.” In other words, truth is subjective to our lives, not absolutely true in an objective sense for everyone. Do you agree with this? Why? Why not?

4.John Dewey in his treatise, “The Quest for Certainty,” asserts that imaginative and emotional religious beliefs were characterized by “myths for the benefit of the masses” and the “preservation of social institutions” (146). While philosophy seemed suited to attacking these myths it ends up justifying them, providing a rational justification for these myths rather than penetrating them. In the end, Dewey seems to claim that both religion and philosophy share the desire to escape the complexity and difficulties of everyday reality, which he calls the “quest for certainty.” By exposing this “quest” Dewey hopes to pave the way for a new kind of philosophy.  What is this new philosophy and how is it best characterized by Dewey?

5.In “The Conception of God” Royce offers a proof for the existence of God.  State this proof in you own words, and make clear the assumptions on which it rests.  Defend or criticize this proof.

6.What is the basic moral law that Royce states and attempts to defend in “The Philosophy of Loyalty”? What does he mean by this moral law?

7.Why does Santayana praise William James and his philosophy a significant alternative to the “genteel tradition” of Edwards, Emerson, and their followers?  Explain.

8.What are Santayana’s principal objections to ethical absolutes, and how does he try in “Hypostatic Ethics” to establish that absolutism in ethics must take a back seat to moral relativism or naturalism?


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